I don’t think I am going out on a limb to say that most of us don’t get into the restaurant business because of a visceral attraction to the field of sanitation. More likely, we chose this path because of a love of food and wine, a proclivity to hospitality, or the possibility of turning a passion (or, at least a talent) into a livelihood. Nonetheless, we all find that in addition to the obvious, we must also gain more than a passing familiarity with a wide variety of extra-culinary skills. Marketing, bookkeeping, child psychology (I’m thinking of our employees here), insurance and plumbing, to name just a few, all come to mind. Although each of these topics is important, none compare to how crucial the implementation of good sanitation practices in our kitchens are. Few things can bring your business to an immediate, grinding halt more effectively than actually hurting customers with your food. With all this in mind, let’s look at the issue of kitchen sanitation in a practical way, broken down into 10 critical points that will be easy to apply in our restaurants.

1.) The three types of food contaminants

The three basic types of contaminants that we have to deal with in our kitchens are physical, chemical and biological.

Physical contaminants exist in every kitchen. The point is to make sure that, by establishing and maintaining certain procedures, and by training your staff to be observant, none of them ends up in the food you serve your guests. Hair, rocks, metal shavings, broken glass, foil, plastic wrap, bandages and other obviously non-food items will disgust your guests at best, or injure them at worst. Don’t stint in your efforts to be sure that everyone on your staff understands the importance of paying attention to what they put on a plate, or serve a guest. (Spotting a piece of foil on a plate is only one thing your cooks and waiters should be on the lookout for. An overcooked piece of fish or broken sauce shouldn’t go unnoticed, either.) Giving your staff as many reasons as you can for being proud of their work will go a long way in this regard. It’s important for management to pay attention to what goes on in the kitchen as well. If a cook doesn’t look through the dried beans for rocks before he cooks them, or doesn’t replace the foil on a hotel pan when it gets torn, or has more hair sticking out from his cap than he has under it, someone should notice and steer him in the right direction. It would also be helpful if that cook understood that if he were to point out that the can opener added metal shavings to the food every time it was used, he’d be praised, not ridiculed.

Chemical contaminants are useful products in our kitchens that, if consumed, will cause chemical poisoning. Things like cleaners, disinfectants and pesticides all have their place in our kitchens, but care must be taken to keep them out of the food. Keep all of these products stored in an area away from food storage and preparation. They should all be well marked, in the original containers when possible. Train your staff in their proper use. Hazardous Material Data Sheets should be readily available for all staff to refer to. Ideally, pesticides should be handled only by professionals, and not stored in your kitchen at all. Be sure that you only store food in containers specifically made for that purpose; plastic trash bags, for example, sometimes contain poison.

Biological contaminants, know as pathogens, are the ones that can most easily cause food-borne illness due to an operator’s lack of understanding or effort. Pathogens are microorganisms found in food that, when present in sufficient quantities, will make a person who eats that food sick. From a practical standpoint, it’s all about understanding how pathogens flourish, and how to prevent them from doing so.

Common pathogens, such as Salmonella and Trichina Spiralis, need sufficient moisture and protein, a moderate pH level, a temperature range of 40ºF-140ºF, and a sufficient time within this environment to thrive and multiply to dangerous levels. Some foods, like meat, seafood, eggs, most dairy, and cooked pasta, rice and beans are as appealing to pathogens are they are to us. Because of that, these foods are considered “potentially hazardous.” Other foods, such as nuts, hard cheeses, vegetables, fruits, dried and salted foods like ham or salami, and uncooked dried pasta and beans are less hospitable to pathogens. Special care must always be given to potentially hazardous foods in terms of keeping them, and products containing them, out of the “danger zone” of 40ºF-140ºF, and avoiding cross contamination with other products. Some tips on how to accomplish this follow.

For a more detailed discussion of food contaminants, see Restaurant Startup & Growth, September 2010 issue, How to Maintain a Good Health Score.

2.) Hand washing

Training your staff to frequently and correctly wash their hands is one of the simplest things you can do to insure good sanitation in your kitchen. First, do your job as a manager by always having hand soap and paper towels available at each hand sink, and having each hand sink supplied with plenty of hot water. Assign one person on each shift to check that this is so, and to stock each sink as needed. Then, as simple as it sounds, make sure that each of your workers knows the proper technique for washing their hands in a commercial kitchen setting. A quick rinse under cold water, followed by wiping their hands on their apron won’t kill the pathogens on their hands, which is the goal. The correct method isn’t much more complicated, and doesn’t take much more time. After getting warm water to run (at least 100ºF), put a drop of hand soap about the size of a quarter in your palm. Proceed to wash your hands thoroughly, paying special attention under your fingernails, for about 20 seconds. Rinse under more warm water, dry your hands on a paper towel, and then use the paper towel to turn off the faucet. As simple and quick as this is, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that this is the single most effective thing one can do to prevent the spread of pathogens that cause food-borne illness.

Once everyone knows how to wash their hands correctly, when should they use their newly acquired skill? At the very least: before handling any food, after using the restroom, after sneezing or coughing, after eating, after handling any raw product, and whenever they feel like they should. Never be shy about suggesting that someone wash their hands if you think they should, and always lead by example.

This is a good time to bring up the subject of latex gloves. Many people, and some Health Departments, insist on their use in commercial kitchens at all times. Others don’t, and even frown upon the practice. I’m in the latter camp. Wearing gloves can give a certain type of worker the feeling of invincibility in terms of being sanitary. If someone touches raw chicken with their bare hands, it will be hard to stop them from thoroughly washing up when they are finished. If someone who is just not thinking handles that same raw chicken while wearing gloves, there is a chance they might move right on to prepping salad. Obviously, if a single-use glove rule is always adhered to, then there’s no problem. In my kitchens, I always prefer to just encourage very frequent hand washing.

3.) Food awareness

Pay close attention to the condition of your food products and how they are handled from the minute they are checked in, to the moment they are served, and at every stage in between.

As soon as perishable items are received they should be stored at the appropriate temperature. Keep refrigerators between 34ºF and 40ºF, and freezers at 32ºF or below. If you keep fresh seafood on ice, have perforated pans and other necessary equipment handy, so that it will be convenient to use. Keep your storage areas clean, uncluttered and well lit to make it easy for your staff to rotate the stock. Pay extra attention when storing raw chicken. Always be sure that it is kept on the lowest shelves in your cooler. If a crate of raw chicken leaks Salmonella onto the cooler floor it’s not great, but it’s a lot better than leaking into a case of Iceberg lettuce.

The best way to thaw frozen products is in the cooler. If you don’t have time for that, the next best way is to place the wrapped product under cold running water in a prep sink. As soon as it is defrosted, place it in a cooler until needed. When prepping perishable items like seafood, keep only a minimum amount out of the cooler, and keep that small amount in a pan or bowl over ice.

When cooling items like hot stocks, stews or soups, the idea is to get them from hot to cool as quickly as possible. This is so that they are in the “danger zone” (40ºF-140ºF), where pathogens multiply most quickly, for as little time as possible. An easy way to accomplish this is to put the product in a metal container, put the container in a sink containing ice, add water to the sink and stir the product frequently. Once the product gets down to below 40ºF, place it in a covered, marked container and store in a cooler. To cool items like rice, spread it into a thin layer on a sheet pan.

When heating a previously chilled item, the same goal of having it in the danger zone for as little time as possible also applies. Keep the item chilled until ready to heat, and then do so in a pot over an open flame or in an oven that’s at least 325ºF. Don’t try to heat anything on a steam table.

If you’re not sure about the soundness of any product, at any time, the old saying, “When in doubt, throw it out” is a good one to follow.

4.) Keep work surfaces sanitized

In the same way that your staff should be trained to instinctively wash their hands throughout a shift, your kitchen staff should automatically clean and sanitize their stations after every task, before starting the next. When something has been sanitized, it means that any pathogens on it have been killed. Your chefs and cooks should be trained and encouraged to wipe down all surfaces with hot, soapy water, replace cutting boards if necessary, wash and sanitize all tools in a three-compartment sink and then finally wipe down all the surfaces on their station with a towel that’s been soaking in a conveniently located container filled with a sanitizing solution containing bleach, iodine or quaternary ammonium. Plenty of these containers should be a part of every commercial kitchen. If a particular station contains a piece of equipment, such as a slicer, this should also be cleaned and sanitized before moving on. Although it’s always important to clean and sanitize a station in this manner, it’s crucial to do so if any raw products, such as chicken or pork, were being worked with.

5.) Cross contamination

Cross contamination is when a piece of equipment such as a cutting board, knife or work table becomes contaminated with something like raw chicken or pork, and is then used for another item, such as a ham sandwich, without first being sanitized. Frequent hand washing and sanitizing stations after each task will avoid many chances for cross contamination to occur, but everyone in your kitchen, from pot washers to the executive chef need to be aware of this potential problem and help avoid it at all cost.

Warewashing equipment is a real ally in combating cross contamination when used correctly, as can a three-compartment sink. The first basin of a three-compartment sink should contain detergent in water of at least 120ºF; the second basin, clean rinse water of at least 130ºF; and the third basin, water of at least 170ºF. After an item has been washed in the first basin and rinsed in the second, it should be submerged in the third for at least 30 seconds, and then air-dried. Another option is for the third basin to be filled with a sanitizing solution, and used according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Refill each basin as necessary.

6.) Cleaning schedules and checklists

Some types of cleaning, like washing and sanitizing individual stations during a shift and hand washing, will become automatic for your staff – at least they will be with regular encouragement. Other cleaning chores are more likely to get done when listed on printed schedules, with printed checklists to act as reminders. Two checklists that work as valuable tools for many operators are basic opening and closing checklists. Depending on your operation, you might want to write specific daily checklists for each station in your kitchen, for each shift. While probably containing more duties having to do with food production, cleaning/sanitation items can also appear on these lists.

Having a periodic “deep clean” schedule is usually a good idea. Tasks that might only get done once a week or every few days, like cleaning behind work tables or cooking equipment, more complete cleaning of walk-ins or stoves, and super-cleaning of floors and walls, have a much better chance of getting done on a regular basis is they appear on a list that needs to be initialed when completed. It’s easy to start to consider these lists more of conceptual entity than a regularly used tool. Assign one person the task of seeing that they actually get used, and then follow up to make sure that they do.

Don’t forget to get your exhaust hoods cleaned on a regular basis. Not only can grease build-up cause odors and attract pests, it is a fire hazard as well.

7.) Waste disposal

Waste disposal is neither difficult nor glamorous, but it is important and needs to be handled well to avoid smells, rodents, insects, and to generally maintain a healthy environment. The basics count. Have plenty of garbage cans in your kitchen and plenty of properly fitting liners to go in them. Part of your opening checklist should be to have them set up and ready for action before prep begins. Encourage your staff to empty them before they’re overflowing, and be sure that you are getting trash pick ups often enough so that when they take a trash can out to the dumpster, there is room in it. Take the time and effort to keep your dumpster area clean and organized. Sanitize your trash cans regularly. Be sure that the dumpster is always closed, and maybe even locked at night, to keep out various visitors. If your situation warrants it, think about hiring a grease and oil disposal service.

When negotiating your waste disposal contract, check to see what the cost of an extra pick up is, and how often the company will provide you with a clean dumpster.

8.) Pest control

Pests such as cockroaches, flies, rodents and ants cause many problems for restaurateurs. From spreading disease, ruining product, destroying property and scaring away customers, they are something to combat with all of our resources. Usually the best approach at keeping these pests at bay is twofold: doing everything you can in-house, and also hiring a professional to take it from there. First, follow all of the advice given above. A clean, organized restaurant, from the front door back to the dumpster, is much less appealing and accessible to all manner of vermin than one that is less immaculate. Be on the lookout for any holes that pests can enter your building through, and have them sealed. Keep all kitchen and storage areas well organized and spotless. Regular treatments by professionals who can read the clues that we might miss and act on them appropriately can be very effective in keeping pests at bay.

9.) Communicate with your staff

Understand that everyone who works in your restaurant needs to understand the importance of good sanitation, and know just what that means in a practical sense. It does no good if your chefs and cooks understand just what and what not to do, but your steward thinks nothing of putting a pan of raw chicken in a speed rack over a cheese tray. Thorough training along with regular observation and reinforcement need to be part of your plan from the start. It should be your goal to develop in your staff an instinctive reaction against doing anything with food that will make it unhealthy to serve to their guests.

It’s also a good policy to make sure that your workers understand that they won’t be punished for calling in sick with a legitimate illness. Of course, more than one appendectomy in any one worker will be considered suspect.

10.) See Health inspections as the opportunity that they are

Don’t forget that your inspector from the Health Department and you are on the same side. It’s very important for both of you that no one gets sick from eating in your restaurant, and you both bring different experiences and insights to the table to prevent it. If you approach him or her with the attitude that, “I’m doing everything I know to run a tight ship, and would appreciate any advice you might have to help me do better,” you might be surprised at what an ally they will be in your efforts to run a healthy shop.